Personality in Sports: Characteristics for Athlete and Team Success



Personality of Athletes

Imagine the final minute of a national championship match. The fate of the game relies on the final scoring opportunity. The top player receives the ball, and the coach is counting on this player to take the winning shot. Instead, the player passes the ball to a teammate, who shoots and misses. The team loses.

Scenarios like this are common in the world of sports. What causes the star player to pass instead of shoot? It’s likely personality, a little-considered factor impacting the performance of athletes, teams, and coaches. Determining the cause of a decision such as the one made by this star player requires the consideration of individual differences and how they impact team dynamics and overall performance.

The Hogan Assessment Systems suite of personality assessments enables coaches and athletes to strategically identify developmental opportunities beyond physical training. The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) offers insights to how everyday personality characteristics impact performance, the Hogan Development Survey (HDS) provides a look at extreme personality displays with the potential to hinder performance, and the Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) describes performance drivers.

Personality, Self-awareness, and Development

The use of personality tests to identify and drive talent development initiatives is prevalent across industries. In the sports and recreation industry, personality tests are gaining momentum. In turn, consultants versed in Hogan’s assessments are successfully advancing individual and team performance.

Understanding the personalities of athletes and coaches provides insight for people to overcome tendencies for undesirable behavior that can hinder individual and team performance. Personality tests can help athletes and coaches gain self-awareness to adjust their behavior and improve performance. Hogan’s core assessments provide unique insights that establish a baseline for these developmental opportunities.

Hogan researchers collaborated with Srdjan Vukcevic, CEO and executive coach of Blue Coach, to explore personality in a sports context. Vukcevic and his team apply personality-based initiatives for athlete and coach development. Conducted in collaboration with the Montenegrin Olympic Committee, their research on sports performance and observations of team success (or lack thereof) shows clear evidence of the influential role of personality in individual performance and social team interactions.

Personality of Athletes

Blue Coach works with national and professional teams in European countries with smaller populations. The size of these populations limits the number of players available to build high-functioning teams. According to famed Montenegrin water polo coach Petar Porobic, “When you don’t have a large pool of players, you need to work with them.” In other words, small player pools require strategic methods to develop available athletes. This created an opportunity for Blue Coach to promote growth based on self-awareness of personality characteristics that are important for, or detrimental to, athletic success. Vukcevic emphasizes that the personality of players does not change, but identifying characteristics relevant to success in a specific sport or position can help drive personnel initiatives.

Each player brings a unique personality to the team, and certain personality profiles can be more successful in one position over another. For example, Blue Coach consultants recognized the best handball wings on a premier women’s handball team scored high on the HDS Excitable scale.1 “These girls are on fire,” Vukcevic explains, referencing a song by singer Alicia Keys. “They are quick and in an instant can steal the ball, take off, and score.” This intensity results from high HDS Excitable scores and improves performance in the position. In contrast, these same tendencies would be detrimental to a more central member of the team. “These high scores would be dangerous for the main player; she needs to have a clear head.”

Blue Coach and its team of consultants also link personality to practice behavior and game performance. They found, in general, the best athletes tend to score higher on the HPI Prudence and HDS Diligent2 scales, making them more likely to be self-motivated and focused during practice. Athletes who score lower on these scales tend to require constant reminders to practice and complete drills, especially when the coach is not present to keep them accountable.

Although some characteristics can improve performance, others can cause athletes to become less effective. For example, Blue Coach suspects lower scores on MVPI Power3 represent a lack of competitiveness (e.g., a player avoiding the game-winning shot when they are the most capable). Similarly, higher HPI Sociability4 and MVPI Hedonism5 can “destroy the potential” of an individual team member. Athletes with higher scores on these scales are less likely to respond to feedback and are more likely to engage in behaviors that negatively impact performance, such as going out for drinks the night before an important match. To highlight this interpretation, Vladan Gojkovic, the national water polo coach for Montenegro, describes a situation he witnessed during his work with a team: “The team was traveling for a very important game, and the players asked if they could go to a soccer match the night before that was more than 200 kilometers away. This is the type of behavior that impacts their performance as a team.”

Often, Vukcevic recommends interpreting HPI scales at the subscale level. He finds that focusing on portions of the HPI Ambition scale,6 such as Competitive, provides critical insight to an athlete’s competitive nature. In contrast, the No Social Anxiety subscale is less relevant because it focuses on an individual’s social self-confidence. This subscale may be important for identifying an athlete who excels during postgame interviews, but it is less important when focusing on game performance. He further highlights an atypical relationship between the Accomplishment subscale and performance outcomes: “Lower [HPI] Ambition scores (especially lower Accomplishment [subscale] scores) may translate to a view of low achievement and that you [the athlete or coach] can always achieve more, always more.” He believes that great athletes and successful coaches never accept that they have achieved ultimate success and therefore are always working to get better. As Dragan Adzic, a two-time consecutive World Handball Coach of the Year declares, “Respect what you have already achieved, and do your best to achieve even more.”

Personality of Coaches

A team responds to the personnel decisions made by their coach. Blue Coach consultants work with sports coaches to develop effective inter- and intrapersonal strategies. Similar to the leadership development initiatives used in business environments, Blue Coach helps coaches become more aware of how others perceive them. With this information, coaches see a clear path to develop both personally and professionally. Dragan Adzic describes his experience working one-on-one with Vukcevic: “With him, I have learned the real and scientific value of incorporating personality in my coaching. … Knowing all of my derailers and information I’ve got from [the] results has changed my perception of myself and of how other people see me. Since that time, I have been working on myself with the help of [the] Hogan assessments and I think that people with whom I work and live have noticed progress. I can surely control myself better and know myself better after the assessment.”

Blue Coach continues to work with Dragan to address potential inhibitors in his coaching ability. Although his team was successful, Dragan feels the HDS helped him identify specific development opportunities that were not easily pinpointed. He shares: “I had a strong tendency for burning my stress inside — the inner churn. My calmness was there but always with the cost. That cost was my inner battle and highly reserved [HDS Reserved7] behavior under stress. Because of that I usually responded to situations that required communication with silence. I knew that I need[ed] to communicate, but because of my personality, I have been postponing these conversations with players until we all come into an emotionally boiling situation. I saw that as my weakness and worked on it regularly by scheduling conversations with players from week to week.”

Through behavioral observations and one-on-one consulting, Blue Coach provides guidance around the Hogan assessments and gains insight to what makes an effective coach. Consultants find that an effective coach is not a people pleaser. Instead, the best coaches are those who score high on HPI Prudence and HDS Diligent.8 These coaches tend to micromanage (which can be frustrating for some), but their level of preparation makes them successful. These coaches are the individuals who “get on the bus after a win and immediately start analyzing the next opponent.” What separates Dragan Adzic, Vladan Gojkovic, and Petar Porobic from the rest is their attention to detail and degree of focus. This is what can distinguish a good coach from a great coach.

In addition, Vukcevic provides player insights that help coaches understand the individual differences that drive their behavior. He says: “Hogan gives the coach information on how to see the underlying aspects of performance for individual players that he [the coach] couldn’t see. Although he was aware of them for a long time, the core assessments allowed him to see these outcomes in Hogan language.” Through a deeper understanding of the personalities of the players, Vukcevic helps coaches take these insights and derive actionable development strategies for players.

Team Dynamics

At the team level, Blue Coach works extensively to curb negative outcomes driven by poor interpersonal relations. Negative feedback is common and accepted in the world of sports. It is exhibited through constructive coaching and general communication between players during practices and games. However, when this spills outside of the sport, it can have consequences that impact team performance. Vukcevic describes a specific example where interpersonal issues affected team performance: “Game performance is perfect. The issue is the interpersonal interactions between the players. Physical performance feedback is already there and accepted. However, there are small clans within the team that are usually against each other. Sometimes this produces a little bit of conflict and competitiveness, and instead of being positive, it hits at a personal level.”

This type of behavior is what impacts the “flow” of the team. Flow is a concept developed

by famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that describes a process of optimal performance, where players are 100% in the moment and playing at a high level. Vukcevic believes that interpersonal conflicts can disrupt this flow and impact the performance of the team. Specifically, he interprets scores on Hogan scales such as HPI Interpersonal Sensitivity, HDS Reserved, and HDS Leisurely9 to help coaches strategically address conflict. He states that “When passive-aggressive behavior turns into ‘I’m not giving you the ball in the game,’ then the team is going to have problems.” This has led to coaching initiatives that promote regular meetings with players and cohesive team development.

Conclusion

Hogan’s suite of assessments promotes self-awareness for the development of managers, leaders, and employees in traditional work spaces. Similar initiatives are gaining traction in alternative areas, including the sports and recreation industry. Collaborations with consulting groups, such as Blue Coach, show how personality relates to competitiveness, achievement orientation, focus, and team relations in a sports context. These findings suggest that consultants interested in sports may find opportunities to work with sports teams, helping members become aware of their personalities and understand how personality impacts overall performance.

Notes

  1. Players who score higher on HDS Excitable tend be described as intense and energetic; HDS Excitable with Handball Game Performance (r = .18).
  2. Players who score higher on HPI Prudence and HDS Diligent tend to be described as attentive, dependable, and perfectionistic; HPI Prudence (r = .30) and HDS Diligent (r = .43) with Training Performance.
  3. Players who score higher on MVPI Power tend to be competitive and achievement oriented; MVPI Power with Overall Performance (r = .26).
  4. Players with higher scores on HPI Sociability tend to be socially proactive and distractible but may also be team oriented; HPI Sociability with Off-Field Public Behavior (r = -.13).
  5. Players with higher scores on MVPI Hedonism tend to make their own rules and want to have a good time; MVPI Hedonism and Overall Performance (r = -.18).
  6. Players who score higher on Ambition tend to be competitive, energetic, and will take initiative; HPI Ambition and Overall Performance (r = .21).
  7. Coaches with higher HDS Reserved scores tend to be unapproachable and uncommunicative under pressure.
  8. Coaches with higher HPI Prudence and HDS Diligent scores tend to be process focused, organized, and rigid about details and rules.
  9. Teams with lower HPI Interpersonal Sensitivity, higher HDS Reserved, and/or higher HDS Leisurely scores will tend to have stressed relationships among members of the team; HPI Interpersonal Sensitivity (r = .18), HDS Reserved (r = -.16), and HDS Leisurely (r = -.18) with Overall Performance.